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Around noon on Dec. 12, New Shepard, a reusable rocket developed by Blue Origin for the space tourism market, took off from the company’s launch pad in west Texas. The rocket didn’t carry tourists, but its payload did include 12 tubes of T-cells taken from mice and grown in a lab for a research project conducted by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach in conjunction with the University of Texas Health Science Center and the Medical University of South Carolina.

T-cells develop from stem cells in bone marrow and play an important role in the body’s immune systems. T-cell therapy, in which a patient’s own T-cells are reprogrammed to attack tumors, is seen as one of the most promising potential treatments for cancer.

The suborbital space flight exposed the Embry-Riddle T-cells to nearly 4 minutes of microgravity, in hopes of giving researchers better insight into how microgravity may change T-cells. Microgravity more closely mimics the physiological conditions inside a human body than do conditions in a lab. Pedro Llanos, an Embry-Riddle assistant professor of Spaceflight Operations and principal investigator on the T-cell research, says his team is still evaluating the data collected from the flight. But the team says it has already seen evidence of changes in some subsets of T-cells compared with the control sample.

The next step, the researchers say, will to be to see if they can replicate the results of the first experiment. Eventually, they hope to get actual mice with the T-cells in them onto the International Space Station to test the effects of microgravity over a longer period.

Cancer Briefs

Ovarian Cancer
Dr. Carolyn D. Runowicz and Sakhrat Khizroev / FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine

Ovarian cancer is particularly frustrating because while 80% of patients initially respond to treatment, the 10- year survival rate is only about 20%. In part, that’s because it’s difficult to target treatment inside the peritoneal cavity, says Dr. Carolyn D. Runowicz, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and executive associate dean for academic affairs at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. But when she learned that FIU researchers had gotten remotely controlled magneto-electric nanoparticles to cross the blood-brain barrier, she saw a way into the peritoneal cavity. She shared her idea with the researchers, led by Sakhrat Khizroev, a professor of electrical engineering and cellular biology who is director of FIU’s Center for Personalized Nanomedicine. Khizroev “figured out how to attach the nanoparticle to Taxol, which is very active in ovarian cancer,” Runowicz says.

“It means we can see a tumor without really getting inside the body,” explains Khizroev. “We can kill it wherever and whenever we want.”

The treatment has been successful in animal testing. Human trials are at least five years away. — Rochelle Broder-Singer

Cancer Rates in Florida

  • Breast: 114.8 cases per 100,000 people
  • Prostate: 83.1
  • Lung and bronchus: 57.0
  • Colon and rectum: 35.4
  • Corpus and uterus: 24.0
  • Melanomas of the skin: 23.2
  • Urinary bladder: 17.9
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: 16.7
  • Kidney and renal pelvis: 13.6
  • Oral cavity and pharynx: 13.3

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014

Scot Ackerman
Ackerman Cancer Center / Jacksonville

Ackerman Cancer Center in Jacksonville began offering proton therapy three years ago. It is one of about 25 proton therapy centers in the U.S. and the first opened by a private physicians practice.

Proton therapy destroys cancer cells by using proton particles to deliver targeted doses of radiation. The treatment has less impact on surrounding tissue. And equipment costs are coming down from the $20 million to $30 million Ackerman paid.

In its first 2½ years, Ackerman has treated about 600 patients using proton therapy. According to a 2014 MD Anderson Cancer Center study, proton therapy cost 22% more than conventional radiation after the first 10 days of treatment. By the end of a full treatment cycle, the total cost was 6% higher but with fewer side effects. — Mark Basch

Prostate Cancer
Dr. George Suarez / Urologist

Urologist Dr. George Suarez, founder of International HIFU Centers, introduced in the U.S. the use of ultrasound energy to heat and destroy cancerous tissue in men with prostate cancer. Known as HIFU, the treatment doesn’t damage surrounding tissues and has lower risks of impotence and incontinence than traditional radiation, chemotherapy or surgery — down from 80% to 2%, and from 20% to 0.4%, Suarez says.

After seeing the treatment in use in Europe, Suarez had a friend, a physician in the Dominican Republic, purchase the machine for use at a private Catholic university in that country, where it was approved. Suarez began taking his patients to the Dominican Republic for treatment, at $20,000 each.

Noting how many procedures Suarez was doing in the Dominican Republic, the HIFU device maker, SonaCare, hired him to oversee U.S. clinical trials. Meanwhile, he opened other treatment sites outside the U.S.

“My recurrence rate at 10 years is 2%,” Suarez says. “The patient will have the procedure at, say, 8 o’clock in the morning, and by noon, he’s home having lunch. He has no pain. If he has any discomfort, he’ll take an Advil.” — Rochelle Broder-Singer

A New Attack
Matthew Pipkin / Cellular Biologist Scripps Florida, Jupiter

Scripps Florida scientist Matthew Pipkin and his collaborators discovered a protein — Runx3 — that teaches specialized diseasefighting white blood cells to latch onto tumors and sites of infection. Knowing how the white blood cells learn to leave the spleen and lymph nodes to kill germs and cancers is essential to developing cancer-fighting immunotherapies. The work was published in the journal Nature last year. Reinfusing a patient’s immune cells after they’ve been engineered to destroy cancer has worked “stunningly well,” according to Scripps, in some blood cancers, but not as well in solid tumors. Now that scientists know about Runx3’s function, they can work on getting cancer-fighting cells to amass in solid tumors. “It was a fantastic collaboration,” Pipkin says. — Mike Vogel

 

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